The Book of Miracles: Fake News with a Renaissance Frosting

The Book of Miracles.  Amazon  |  Goodreads  |  WorldCat

The Book of Miracles. Amazon | Goodreads | WorldCat

The year is 2016. A narcissistic reality star wins the presidency of the most powerful nation on Earth. Half of the world is in shock. The mainstream media that has served as his echo chamber throughout the campaign finally dares to look inward and ask a meaningful question:

How did we get here?

Short questions usually have long answers. It’s a reality that no contemporary media, be it CNN or Breitbart, is equipped to deal with. The idyllic Sunday mornings when people flipped through newspapers the size of shower curtains are long gone. Modern journalists write for skimmers, a new species of readers who frantically thumb through snippets of text to fill in the gaps in their schedules. Ironically, the only place suited for long-form news consumption is the toilet, which may shed some light on the real reason why some people think long articles stink.

Blame It On the Boogie

So, how did we get there? After a bit of soul-searching, the US intellectual elite decided to recycle some ideas from its Cold War rulebook. It must be the Russians, they said.

Russians—as is widely known—are by nature evil. They harbor irrational hatred towards societies that value peace, happiness, and female presidents. Horrified by the prospect of having to shake Hilary’s hand at the next UN summit, Vladimir Putin retreated to his secret Siberian lab, experimented on cute little kittens, and invented a devastating political weapon, never seen before in human history—fake news.

American society, that shiny bastion of genuineness, was caught by surprise. Social networks were particularly vulnerable, since they facilitated a new form of human activity called global communication. Just like unregulated butt sex kickstarted the AIDS pandemic, Facebook and Twitter instantly became incubators of vicious lies. Since then, governments around the world have been trying to invent the media equivalent of the condom.

Cue In the Prequels

Of course, the uniqueness of this drama quickly diminishes once you leave the bubble of the present. Info wars have been waged since the invention of speech. Actual wars were triggered by text editing and press campaigns. Those facts are rarely mentioned, if ever. There’s simply no time for them in our mind-numbing race to stay informed on what’s currently going on.

The once noble idea about living in the present has been taken to such an extreme, we have become completely detached from our past. Few of us know that the most prestigious prize in US journalism, the Pulitzer, was named after a man who pioneered the yellow newspaper. It’s almost certain that in a hundred years, there will be some equivalent named after Mark Zuckerberg, and there’s nothing you and I can do about it.

Folio 90, The Tiber Monster . “In A.D. 1496, in the month of January, at the time the Tiber burst its banks high and wide near Rome: what wondrous creature appeared, found dead where the raging and the might of the Tiber’s waters had subsided, and was in this shape and form, as it is painted there.”

Folio 90, The Tiber Monster. “In A.D. 1496, in the month of January, at the time the Tiber burst its banks high and wide near Rome: what wondrous creature appeared, found dead where the raging and the might of the Tiber’s waters had subsided, and was in this shape and form, as it is painted there.”

What we can do is put the sound bites and clickbait aside and explore the real cause of the fake news phenomenon. Here’s where the Augsburg Book of Miracles comes into play.

Don’t be misled by the title. This book has nothing to do with miracles as we understand them today. It was compiled not as a collection of fantasy tales, but as a documentary. In short, its miracles were presented as common-sense facts.

As a reader, you were expected to believe that a freak animal that looked like a crossbreed between a Pixar monster and a Salvador Dali character was found on the banks of the Tiber river near Rome.

There’s a beautiful description in Gothic letters that spares us the political context of the curious event, but a bit of independent research leads to an anti-Catholic pamphlet by Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon. The last one, in a stoke of genius, named the freak animal The Papal Ass. Its sudden appearance was God’s warning to the corrupt Roman popes and heralded the beginning of the end of times, when Jesus would come back to congratulate all Protestants for being right and punish all Catholics for being very, very naughty.

Those inconvenient details are omitted by the authors of the book probably because Augsburg was a bi-confessional imperial city. Catholics and Protestants had to coexist peacefully, even if they hated their guts, and, as the Renaissance equivalent of a popular illustrated magazine, The Book of Miracles couldn’t afford to alienate a significant part of its readership.

An earlier depiction of the Tiber monster by Lucas Cranach the Elder from 1523. Note the flag of the Papal States on the left tower, which is not present in the illustration from The Book of Miracles.

An earlier depiction of the Tiber monster by Lucas Cranach the Elder from 1523. Note the flag of the Papal States on the left tower, which is not present in the illustration from The Book of Miracles.

The Curse of the Control Freak

We are naturally inclined to believe in a Universe that is neat and organized. It’s up to scientists to determine whether that’s a result of biological evolution (chaos is often deadly to living things) or it represents some dissociative mental state that got reinforced by peer pressure (living in a town without common rules is also deadly).

It could as well be a combination of both, but what really matters is the way in which the human mind tries to assign meaning to random events. The rigid Christian doctrines not only overstate the importance of natural cycles but considers them eternal. Hence, the sudden appearance of a comet or a monstrous birth look like divine tantrums and have to be contextualized and decoded.

Why would an omnipotent multilingual God use vague signs that could be easily misinterpreted is a fascinating question. But just like our modern conundrum with How did we get here? there is little evidence people at the time considered answering it. They were busy reinforcing their own assumptions—an ancient tendency known today as confirmation bias.

Left:  Folio 129, Dragons.  “1533 years after the birth of Christ, on the Friday after St Ursula, the 24th day, such wondrous dragons were seen in the air for nigh on. two hours around 10 o’clock at night in several places near Hilpoltstein and at the Hoffleins House there.” Right:  Folio 131 Parhelia over Münster.  “In the year 1533 three suns shone at the same time, as if they had fiery clouds around them, and they stayed over Münster, as if the city and its houses were burning, as painted here.” Image:  Taschen

Left: Folio 129, Dragons. “1533 years after the birth of Christ, on the Friday after St Ursula, the 24th day, such wondrous dragons were seen in the air for nigh on. two hours around 10 o’clock at night in several places near Hilpoltstein and at the Hoffleins House there.” Right: Folio 131 Parhelia over Münster. “In the year 1533 three suns shone at the same time, as if they had fiery clouds around them, and they stayed over Münster, as if the city and its houses were burning, as painted here.” Image: Taschen

“And there will be terrors and great signs from Heaven”

—Luke 21:11

I hope that several centuries from now someone would excavate a collection of popular Facebook posts and bind them together in an illustrated book. That way our descendants would marvel at our gullibility just like I do while I flip through the folios in the gorgeous Taschen edition of The Book of Miracles. The only thing that worries me is that the corny JPGs in our newsfeeds aren’t nearly as beautiful. This poses a serious problem, since beauty is for stupidity what a candy is for a bitter pill: It suppresses vomiting.